We opened the door to our new home, stepped inside and began to explore. An angry little voice said: Is this it? Our real house is better. It broke my heart.
Overseas relocation is tough. Overseas relocation with kids is even harder.
You leave behind all that is familiar, to start again. As an adult you can understand and rationalise what is to come, but for a child who has been taken away from family, friends, school, home, bedroom; it’s really hard.
They don’t believe that they’ll have fun visiting new places and trying new things.
They don’t believe that they’ll make friends or enjoy a new school; that swimming lessons will be the same or they’ll like the food.
Our sons were six and three years old, and our daughter four months old, when we moved from the UK to the US. I won’t lie, it was hard work, but there are simple, practical ways to ease the transition.
1. Talk to them, and listen
Before, during and after! Your children will need reassurance and although they may ignore you, fight with you and contradict you, it will help in the long run.
Tell them about the country you are moving to. Talk about things that will be different, and things that will be the same. Talk about the weather! Show them pictures, read guide books with them. Be excited and enthusiastic; let your attitude be their guide.
We found the move was hardest, emotionally, on our eldest son. For the first few months he was mainly angry. He hated the house. He hated his new bedroom. He hated the hot weather. He hated the cheese, and the baked beans. He was lonely and upset, and frightened by the huge change in our lives.
The only way through this initial period of adjustment, both before and after the move itself, is to keep communication open. Give advice, comfort, information; be honest and open. Where appropriate, allow them to be part of decisions. And remember, sometimes all your child needs is the validation that comes from being listened to and understood.
2. Make your house feel like home
Take what you can with you to create a familiar space for your children when you arrive. Younger children especially will find the transition much easier if their favourite toys and books are where they expect them to be.
We made sure that the kids possessions took priority when we were packing. Our initial shipment contained their books, toys and clothes along with a selection of family photographs.
When we moved into our new home we focused on decorating their bedrooms and unpacking their boxes; creating a safe and recognisable environment for them.
3. Keep routines and rules the same
Stick to normal routines and rules as much as possible. Don’t over compensate and allow them to get away with behaviour you wouldn’t at home. I found this hard as I knew the root cause of the behaviour was sadness and frustration and I made allowances that I ultimately had to ‘fix’.
Our natural instinct as parents is to protect and soothe, but the extra treats, the relaxation of rules, the second (and third) warnings, will ultimately come back to bite you and will in fact reinforce the feelings of insecurity caused by the change.
4. Source familiar foods
Even the least fussy of eaters will be resistant to familiar foods when they taste a little different. Our children particularly disliked American cheese, baked beans and sausages. Don’t force the issue, their tastes will gradually change. And, if need be, accept that you have to buy really expensive imported baked beans for a while.
When everything else is different, a taste of home can be remarkably comforting. Allow yourself the odd treat too!
5. Make friends
We moved during summer vacation and it was a long six weeks before school started again. The change in behaviour and attitude once the boys were back at school was marked. Feeling alone and isolated is natural when in a new place and the structure and social environment of school goes a long way towards easing those feelings. Getting into a routine and making new friends will make the transition far easier. Do sports and activities after school. Encourage play dates, engineer them if you have to!
For younger children, local parks and the library are great places to meet other families with toddlers.
Volunteer at the school, offer to help at events, get involved in the PTO. If you have a baby, join the local mums group, take classes, sign up for infant swim lessons; whatever you feel comfortable with. But, most importantly, be proactive!
You need friends too, don’t forget yourself as you focus on your children, and making friends with other parents has the added bonus of making friends for your children as well.
6. Keep in touch
Make sure your older children write letters, emails, cards to friends back home. Skype and FaceTime are wonderful for keeping in touch with friends and family. For younger children, seeing family faces is a huge bonus.
My daughter was too young when we left to recognise her grandparents. FaceTime has allowed her to get to know them and to feel comfortable. Seeing her run to them on a family visit, despite not having seen them in person for a year, is truly wonderful. For her and, as importantly, for her grandparents.
Don’t make light of the distance, an ocean makes a spontaneous play date impossible, but help them to understand that there are so many ways to stay connected. We live in a world where our friends don’t always live around the corner.
Relocating; whether to the next town, other end of the country or across the sea; is daunting and scary and hard work. But it is also challenging, exciting and life changing.
Grab every opportunity your move brings you. It’s an adventure, so make the most of it.
And, above all, remember that home is more about the people around you than a place, and in our virtual world distance isn’t necessarily measured in miles.
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